Many Are Called, But Few are Chosen

I vividly remember a class I took several years ago. We constantly did group presentations. Those evenings of sitting there, while group after group talked to the class are permanently drilled into my brain. I can’t recall a single important piece of information, but I remember looking at my watch, eagerly waiting for the time to pass so I could escape from the excruciating pain of boredom. And yet, the time would not pass like it normally does; each second seemed to drag its heels to make the class seem to last far longer than it actually did.

Some time later, it dawned on me that this was exactly what I was doing to my students. In the quest to get students engaged, have them do group work, and to present to others, I was merely having a litany of group presentations. One group after another would go up and present, while the rest of the class would suffer “sit and get,” but from fellow students instead of a teacher.

I then struggled with what to do. If I were to tell the class who was presenting next, then many students would not be engaged during work time. If students completed presentations on their own and then submitted them to me, then they wouldn’t get practice with speaking in front of the class. I also didn’t want to assign worksheets or increase my lecture time. I was at a loss of how to solve this problem.

Eventually, I discovered a solution using Classcraft, my gamification platform.

Rather than have every group go before the class to present, I now use the “Wheel of Destiny” feature of Classcraft to randomly select a student or a group. That student or group will then go up to present or to complete and exercise (for which class time has already been given). If the presentation is good, Experience Points (XP) is awarded. If not, Health Points (HP) is taken away. Because often times these min-presentations are part of classwork and formative assessment, I do not need to formally grade them, and the points suffice. I will only select one to three groups (and require them to be short) to keep the flow of class moving.

As a result, the work time becomes an intense preparation for points, and the performance is a chance to earn points. Because the “Wheel of Destiny” does not repeat student names, every student will be called forth at some point (likely several times throughout the year). Students get the benefit of doing presentations or sharing work publically without having to sit through presentation after presentation.

And they never know where the Wheel of Destiny will land next…

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Keep it Moving!

I once remember reading in an educational psychology book fifteen years ago about the value of limiting students’ time on activities.

That is, it is important not to give kids too much time to work. Too much time can encourage them to waste the time (as economists call it, we consume the time given to us) rather than use it for getting work done. Students will often procrastinate if given too much time. Therefore, it is better to give students a short amount of time to get tasks done.

Unfortunately, I forgot about these ideas for many years until they gratefully resurfaced when I read about the value of timers from Rick Morris’ ideas of classroom management and how he uses timers to keep kids on track. I also received many brilliant insights from the great guru Jon Corippo, including the need to limit time for students to give them pressure and incentive to work quickly.

This year, I have made an effort to do this with just about every activity, and it makes a huge difference in the classroom environment. Kids do not have the opportunity to slack off because they are under the pressure to work efficiently. It gives the class a feel of a faster pace, which also aids engagement and excitement. It is easy to display computer-based timers, such as the Online Countdown Timer and 1-Click Timer.

What if it is genuinely not enough time for some students to complete work? I always give them a chance to submit or resubmit incomplete work on Google Classroom by the beginning of the next day.

You want a livelier classroom? Keep it movin’, folks.

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The Three Pillars of Education

As the role of education is shifting in order to better prepare students for the 21st century, it is crucial that every now and then we stop and reflect on what is our philosophy of education. Within schoolrooms and think tanks, people everywhere are proposing ideas wildly divergent and have ideas that little resemble one another. Some want our schools to churn out excellent test-takers, while others seem to want our students to explore and create all day. Some want a return to a solid academic foundation of yesteryear, while the focus on “STEAM” and makerspaces is becoming vogue. The options are quickly becoming overwhelming.

So what is the role of American schools today?

I would like to propose a philosophy in the image of a three-legged stool.

On the first leg stands student learning. Though this might seem obvious, I think that it is essential that we remember this in the shuffle to change and improve schools. We need to find ways to track whether our students are learning and how much they are learning. This needs to be in both content and skills, as students need to be prepared to enter school at the next level (If we teach middle school, they need to be prepared for high school. If we teach high school, they need to be prepared for college.) Although we shouldn’t overemphasize preparation for future school, we shouldn’t simply leave students unprepared for the next level.

The second leg includes all the skills needed for the 21st century, most commonly referred to as the four C’s (creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking). We cannot simply prepare test takers and analyzers; what good is it if students can analyze, but can’t imagine what the next great product will be? What if we help students analyze the last political election, but they can’t help a candidate win the next election? Almost all endeavors in life require some level of thinking of something unique and new. Most work will also be done in groups or teams; adults do not simply work alone and pump out worksheets.

The third leg sometimes gets forgotten in the shuffle, but it is critical nonetheless. Students need to learn the virtues of hard work and responsibility. Although it is tempting to simply give students high marks for learning material or creating high-quality projects, hard work and effort are essential for the 21st century workforce (and every workforce that has ever existed in human history). This is where students need to face penalties for late work (which can be docked points instead of being merely given zeroes). In the end, if our students do not work hard at their jobs, they will soon find themselves unemployed. Part of working is actually doing one’s job.

Although these ideas might sound simple, most schools and teachers tend to overemphasize one at the detriment of the other two. Many traditional teachers tend to push students to take responsibility for work without reflecting on the value of the worksheets being assigned or whether or not the tests and quizzes are leading to actual learning (let alone giving students a chance to be creative). Others might measure student learning and analyze data, but seem to lack a focus on placing responsibility on students. Those who advocate creativity and makerspaces are doing great things and are pushing students to be lifelong creators, which is certainly a good thing, but it is important to remember that students shouldn’t just be creating all day–they do need to learn essential life and content-related skills.

It is ultimately the balance of these three legs that will best improve our schools and better prepare our students for the future.

Levelling Up

This is my second year of using Classcraft. Now that I had a full year under my belt, I could roll it out with an idea of what works and what doesn’t. I had hoped that the experience would lead to a smoother year of gamification that led to higher levels of learning.

The first thing I considered was a rationale for using gamification. I reflected on Daniel Pink’s famous Ted Talk, where he demonstrated that rewards are not effective in motivating people to engage in higher level thinking or problem-solving skills. In fact, carrots and sticks can prove to be detrimental to the creative and innovative learning process.

This, then, begs the question, why do gamification? Why have any rewards at all?

Daniel Pink’s video itself gives a great clue: carrots and sticks might not be effective for improving innovative or creative productivity, but they can be extremely effective in promoting activities that are more rote and that do not require creativity.

This is the key.

Ultimately, every classroom, learning environment, and workplace has some degree of compliance. Although we have times and spaces (we should have much of our class time) for creative thinking and problem-solving skills, we as human beings need habits, routines, and procedures. A well-functioning environment needs people to comply with this in order to create the safe space required for the risk-taking and creativity that is part of the learning. In other words, the opposite of compliance is not necessarily creativity, but anarchy. As teachers, we must build well-managed environments so that we can then move beyond compliance to the levels of creativity and innovation, but we cannot simply have a non-compliant environment.

I then built several rewards around completing class jobs. I have several class jobs that allow students to take ownership of the learning space, both inside the walls and in virtual space. These include cleaning the whiteboards, maintaining a Google Doc for all the homework assignments from all teachers, maintaining a Google Calendar, maintaining the homework board on the whiteboard, and a few others. If I constantly have to step in and do these jobs, it takes time away from being able to give effective feedback and guidance to students. I gave the award of 100 XP every time a student successfully completes a class job for a week. This reinforces behavior that is not necessarily innovative but it essential to having a well-run classroom.

Another reward I implemented was 25 XP for turning in homework a day early. Because I open assignments on Google Classroom and OpenEd, it is easy for students to complete assignments early and for me to determine who has completed it and who hasn’t. If I can start the day knowing that all or most of my students have completed homework, I can then direct my attention to the essentials of giving feedback and having students correct and revise their work.

I also decided that students could use one extra incentive to buy into Classcraft. I decided that every Monday would begin with a drawing. Every student would receive one ticket for every level above the first level. That is, a Level 4 student would have three tickets in the drawing. The winner would receive a large box or bar of candy. I did this because I believe that we are much more motivated at the possibility of winning something rather than just being handed something in return for an action. The former becomes a game, the latter becomes a bribe.

Lastly, I made sure that every student learn how to log into Classcraft and that they do it on a regular basis. Last year, some students logged in, and others didn’t, which meant that some bought into Classcraft more than others. I made sure that every student logs in and learns how to use powers and train pets.

What I have seen is a culture that is much different from previous cultures in the past. These minor changes have created an emphasis on doing jobs and doing them well. Students have been coming and begging me for a class job so that they can earn XP. I have had barely anyone miss homework assignments. This has freed up my time so that I can focus on essentials like guiding students on the rigors and challenges of the Common Core skills.

By taking Classcraft to the next level, my students will have a productive year.

How’s Your Learning?

This post originally appeared in AppoLearning.

Throughout the course of last year, I read several books on effective teaching practices. After reading through these high-regarded books, I used some of their approaches in order to help students track, understand and invest in their progress. Before we get to implementation, let’s first look at the books that can really enhance pedagogy.

The first one I read was Never Work Harder than your Students, which has a deceptive title because it sounds like a gimmick. However, it is a book that thoroughly details how to become a more effective educator using a variety of strategies. In this book, authorRobyn Jackson discusses the importance of curriculum mapping, clear objectives and – this is the most important piece – students keeping track of how well they are meeting those objectives. She mentions the usual topics such as engaging lessons and feedback, but the crucial piece is that students must monitor their learning to track their progress. In other words, students need to own the learning. It is not enough for us to merely give feedback, but students must also take that feedback, track it, and use it to monitor their progress towards learning objectives. Without this crucial piece, students will be disengaged and not interested in the learning process.

I also read Classroom Instruction That Works, the latest version of the famous series created by Marzano. Strategy number one is for students to receive clear expectations and that they should receive feedback on progress toward those expectations. I also began reading Visible Learning for Teachers by John Hattie, and one of the most effective strategies listed was students’ expectations for themselves. They must be aware of the objectives and have guidance on how they can meet those expectations. Like Jackson, they argue that it is not enough to put objectives on the board (which may or may not be a relevant practice), rather, students need to know exactly what those expectations are and must be working to achieve those standards.

After seeing this clear strategy mentioned consistently in a variety of books, I decided to tackle this school year dedicated to this strategy. I created a variety of tools designed to tackle student-directed learning.

  1. I created a Google Sheet template for students to track how they perform on various formative assessments. I began the unit by having students enter their goal percentage on a final assessment. As students performed throughout a given unit, I had them enter their percentages so that they could track to see how they were progressing towards meeting their goal. I first used this method in grammar by giving them grammar formatives assessments on Google Forms so that they could track their mastery of grammar rules. These assessments included both multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank.
  2. For a reading skill, they tracked their progress by completing a graphic organizer assessing their mastery of inference skills. They read short story selections and completed the inference graphic organizer. These selections came from their literature textbooks and from resource books.
  3. To further bolster inference and close reading skills, they were required to annotate. I then graded their annotations on a rubric. With the graphic organizer and the annotated PDFs, I required that students re-complete the assignments after I had returned it to them, and they had to complete it to earn a score of 100%. I did this by showing students examples of 100% quality work, which opened their eyes to see what excellence looked like.
  4. They also completed an assignment on OpenEd, which is an app that allows students to see how they are performing on a Common Core Standard. It includes assessments and assignments, both of which give teachers and students actionable data.

As students progress through a given unit, they knew how they stood in relation to their goals. They knew how they were progressing and had to think of what they needed to do to improve to meet their goals. As a result, I have seen students taking ownership of the process of their learning. I have seen students reflect and find out what they need to do to master assignments. Often, students might want to succeed, but don’t really know the expectations or what they need to do to achieve those expectations. By placing ownership of the learning in students’ hands, we can see students achieve new heights. The more students own the learning, they more they will learn.

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The Power of Student Choice

When we do technological innovation with our students, it is important the we keep the proper objectives in our minds. We want students to learn the content, innovate, collaborate, and think critically. These are absolutes.

That being said, the way they go about it does not matter so much. Does it matter how they do it? Do they all have to create something in the exact same way?

Recently, I had two projects in my classes, one for Frederick Douglass in my ELA class, and the other for the development of the North and South prior to the Civil War. I had been struggling to motivate and excite my students about ThingLink, but with these projects I opted instead to give students the option of using it. In other words, I let them choose the format for creating the project. They could create a ThingLink, an iMovie documentary, a blog post, a tri-fold poster, a Minecraft village, or any other ideas they they had.

The results far exceeded anything I could conceivably create. One pair of students created a professional-quality documentary, while another used a statistical map of the U.S. as the backdrop for a ThingLink. Others created blog posts protesting slavery by using Douglass’ life as evidence of its evils.

To be sure, I doubt that I could motivate every student to create a ThingLink or a village in Minecraft. Some were excited to write blog posts, but many opted out of that. The standards do not require students to master ThingLink or iMovie or Aurasma or Minecraft. Even the ISTE standards promote creativity and collaboration, but not specific apps or products.

In other words, when we learn about a fancy new tool at a conference, not every student will enjoy it, and that’s okay. It is one tool at our disposal, one way to motivate students.


Questioning the Connected Echo Chamber

This week’s #YourEduStory topic is something I’ve been mulling over for quite some time: Connected Educators sometimes tend to create an echo chamber. I find this most notably on Twitter, where 140 characters and easy contact helps to create a space where everyone agrees with one another, and if they don’t, conversations can quickly escalate into heated arguments.

There are three areas in which I don’t agree with the EduTwitterverse:

  1. Compliance is not the enemy.
  2. Teachers must be given the devices first, and then their hunger must be developed.
  3. There are times when students should put their devices away.

Before you argue with any of my opinions, please take a moment to hear me out:

What is the opposite of compliance? The easy answer some people give can be critical thinking, creativity, or empowerment. But I don’t think that is necessarily true. I believe that the true opposite of compliance is anarchy, which is an environment that does not promote student learning. Now I am not talking about controlled chaos or perceived chaos that is ultimately ordered. (“Oh my gosh! All the students are doing different activities!”) By anarchy, I mean, “Wow, I don’t feel safe in this classroom. Let me get out of here!”

It is important for teachers–even dedicated 21st century educators–to maintain control over the environment. By control, I do not mean that teachers need to regulate every single action of students, but to create a safe environment for learning, risk-taking, and the ability to allow students to work on a wide variety of activities.

To be sure, many teachers simply create activities and lessons that are not centered on student learning, where the only goals are silence and obedience. This is wrong. Some teachers also make homework and classwork a large portion of the grade in order to ensure that students do it. This is also wrong. This is not pedagogy that is focused on student learning; it is an example of teachers attempting to use the grade book like a sword. I do not support these forms of compliance whatsoever.

Secondly, there is always a debate on Twitter between which is better: show teachers the possibilities of tech and make them hungry for the devices, or give them devices first and then make them hungry. I firmly believe that the devices should come first.

Why do I believe this? Because I have seen teachers time and time again tune out when they are at a professional development session, and they realize that they cannot apply what they have learned from a presentation without the technology. Instead of “igniting a fire,” it merely gives teachers a reason to be mad at administration for not providing technology for the latest initiative.

I will provide an analogy to prove this point: I cannot possibly afford to go to Disneyland. It’s roughly $100 per person per day, plus hotel, plus food, plus transportation, etc. Therefore, I do not get excited about Disneyland at all. Why would I bother? I can’t afford it. In a similar vein, teachers who don’t have tech often will not get excited about it.

What’s more, most PD sessions are graded on the idea of “Day One.” That is, a good speaker must present an idea that can be implemented the very next day. That way, teachers can take the idea and immediately begin using it in the classroom. If not, the knowledge will soon be forgotten. If we try to inspire teachers before they even get devices, they will likely forget everything by the time the devices are introduced to the classroom.

Lastly, there is an idea around educational technology circles that students should be able to access their devices at any given point during the day for any reason. If a student is distracted, that is completely the teacher’s fault for making a lesson disengaging or uninspiring.

While it is true that technology requires teachers to design better and more engaging lessons (and that we can’t nor shouldn’t simply punish our students into paying attention), I believe that there are times that students need to put devices away. I teach in a Catholic school, and we have morning prayer. It is inappropriate for students to be watching YouTube videos or playing 2048 when we are doing prayer (and we cannot simply make prayer so exciting that they will magically want to pay attention). I also feel that if I am talking to the class for a brief interval (5 minutes max), they need to put devices away to avoid the distraction.  To be clear, I do allow technology for the vast majority of my class time. I simply feel that technology (as with most things in life) comes with limits.

This brings us to the point of this exercise: how can I prevent Twitter from becoming the echo chamber? I believe that the best way I can do this is by questioning others. If they feel that students should be able to have devices on at all times, then how would they handle times when we do need whole-class attention? If someone advocates “hunger first,” then how would he or she handle teachers who complain about the lack of access. Turning Twitter into a heated argument doesn’t persuade anyone; it merely gets everyone angry with each other.

That being said, if you disagree with any of my thoughts, please feel free to tell me why. I welcome comments and blog posts that provide differing opinions.

They will help us from becoming lifelong members of any echo chamber.


The Joy of Pinterest

Recently, I had been searching for a place where I could get great ideas from others and could save articles and posts for future reading. I had been tinkering with Diigo and EduClipper, but I didn’t have much success.

I then sought advice from Jon Samuelson, who recommended Listly as a resource, and he also recommended Pinterest.


No way. Pinterest is not for me. I’m not interested in recipes or wedding planning, so I can’t possibly get any use out of it. And even then, how can I even use it? It seems like a weird, cryptic site that eludes understanding.

And yet… I trust Jon Samuelson, so I decided to give it a shot.

I was pleasantly surprised.

I began creating boards that fit my educational interests (Educational Technology, Apps for Education, etc.). I would find articles or blog posts that fit those categories, and I began pinning them to those boards. The Pinterest Chrome extension makes this very easy to do. I also sought out some of my PLN members and began following them and their boards.

The result: when I go to my Pinterest homepage, I am bombarded with ideas that are relevant and useful to me. I don’t need to search anywhere to get great ideas and excellent resources.

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Pinterest is exactly what I was seeking: a place where I could share excellent resources with others and easily find resources that I can use.

Go ahead. Try it out. You might just be surprised.


Why I Love Curriculet

Recently, I attended the CUE Conference, and I worked in Curriculet’s booth. I extolled the virtues of Curriculet to passersby and demonstrated its merits.

So why do I love it? And what is it?

Curriculet is an online digital reading platform. It has many great features: scaffolding supports to aid reading (including text, images, and video), questions that pop up to assess student learning (these are both multiple-choice and free-response), and it tracks how quickly students read (or whether or not they finish). These annotations almost always come with the online books, but teachers can always edit these annotations (or create them from scratch). These books are available from an online library, with almost every classic available for free. Curriculet also offers a new USA Today feature, where the most current USA Today articles are available with these annotations.

However, there are other programs that offer these same products and features, most notably Actively Learn and Subtext. I believe that Curriculet stands out for two reasons.

First of all, unlike Subtext, any teacher can use it with his or her students instantly. It is the ultimate “Day One” product. Go in, create an account, give your students a class code, and they are in. What’s more, the classics are free. This is a great tool for high school English teachers who want to give students some extra assistance in reading difficult novels.

Secondly, the layout of Curriculet is far superior to the layout of Actively Learn. Actively Learn looks like books have been transposed onto blog posts, while Curriculet feels much more like a book. Perhaps more importantly, the annotations are tucked neatly to the side, which do not distract the reader until it is time to view the annotations.

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The annotations in Actively Learn are posted directly into the reading, which makes it difficult to focus on the text itself. I believe that these features make Curriculet a much better product and a better choice for middle and high school English teachers.

As I said before: individual teachers can sign up and create accounts. Thus, teachers can sign up tomorrow and get started.

What are you waiting for???

The Joy of PD

Recently, two California greats Scott Bedley and Karl Lindgren-Streicher have taken up a discussion on the value of professional development and conferences. Scott’s post is here and Karl’s post is here. They are both brilliant posts that speak to the triumphs and shortcomings of educational conferences.

I think that many of us have had that experience when were first exposed to educational technology when we realized that there were tons of resources, strategies, and tools at our disposal. We were overwhelmed and overawed at what we could accomplish with what was out there, and we were left astounded. As time went by, however, we adapted to these tools and learned to successfully navigate the tools at our disposal (at which point, pedagogy–not technology–became our focus).

When this saturation point hits people, the conferences become less exciting, less thrilling, and easier to comprehend. Technologically competent teachers feel comfortable with a wide array of apps, websites, and extensions and don’t feel a thrill with many of the sessions at a conference or feel a need to see everything. In a sense, the conferences can become dull.

This then begs a question: are these conferences any less valuable? Can we as more technologically competent educators (not that I am in any way in Karl’s or Scott’s level of proficiency) gain anything from large conferences like CUE or ISTE? If none of the sessions genuinely excite us, is there any point in attending?

I believe the answer is a definitive yes.

I believe that all teachers have to work really hard to get through the days and weeks of the school year. We might innovate and try new things, but we can only try so many things at one time. We might know of other new tools or strategies, but we have to put those on the back-burner as we can only do so many things at one time. Conferences are a time and place where we can take time to reflect on those ideas that have been simmering. I had heard about Adobe Voice many times before going to Scott’s session at CUE, but it gave me a chance to dive in and try it firsthand. Aurasma has been on my iPad for months, but a session at SVCUE by Anne Schaefer-Salinas and Rebecca Girard gave me the time to play with the app and really try it out. Mark Hammons‘ session on iMovie at CUE showed me things about the app that I hadn’t previously known. This time has given me the time and space to try new things and to discuss new ideas. These ideas can come from actual sessions, but they don’t need to. After the first day of CUE, I had a conversation in a bar with Moss Pike about how to run a Minecraft server for a fraction of the cost of purchasing Minecraft for the school. These brief discussions (called by some “HallwayCUEs) are often more valuable than any official presentations at conferences. I also believe that these informal talks can best happen in face-to-face conversations. Yes, we can discuss ideas over Twitter or Voxer, but sometimes we need the real interaction to fully grasp these new and innovative ideas.

And this–more than any official fifty-minute talk in a room–is why I enjoy conferences and believe in their potential.